Embodied language comprehension: Encoding-based and goal-driven processes

Hoedemaker, R. S., & Gordon, P. C. (2014). Embodied language comprehension: Encoding-based and goal-driven processes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 914-929. doi:10.1037/a0032348.
Theories of embodied language comprehension have proposed that language is understood through perceptual simulation of the sensorimotor characteristics of its meaning. Strong support for this claim requires demonstration of encoding-based activation of sensorimotor representations that is distinct from task-related or goal-driven processes. Participants in 3 eye-tracking experiments were presented with triplets of either numbers or object and animal names. In Experiment 1, participants indicated whether the size of the referent of the middle object or animal name was in between the size of the 2 outer items. In Experiment 2, the object and animal names were encoded for an immediate recognition memory task. In Experiment 3, participants completed the same comparison task of Experiment 1 for both words and numbers. During the comparison tasks, word and number decision times showed a symbolic distance effect, such that response time was inversely related to the size difference between the items. A symbolic distance effect was also observed for animal and object encoding times in cases where encoding time likely reflected some goal-driven processes as well. When semantic size was irrelevant to the task (Experiment 2), it had no effect on word encoding times. Number encoding times showed a numerical distance priming effect: Encoding time increased with numerical difference between items. Together these results suggest that while activation of numerical magnitude representations is encoding-based as well as goal-driven, activation of size information associated with words is goal-driven and does not occur automatically during encoding. This conclusion challenges strong theories of embodied cognition which claim that language comprehension consists of activation of analog sensorimotor representations irrespective of higher level processes related to context or task-specific goals
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